Aswad/Linton Kwesi Johnson/New Regulars: Hammersmith Palais, London

MONDAY NIGHT in the Palais: forward and upful all the way. Aswad’s ‘Warrior Charge’ as featured in Babylon and Brinsley Forde’s performance in the principal role in that movie have certainly done nothing to hinder their development as a band and the growth of their reputation.

Result: a house not too sufficiently crammed as to cause discomfort or to inhibit movement and dance, but full enough to create a palpable sense of occasion.

The New Regulars were opening up: formed out of The (Reggae) Regulars and allegedly calling themselves The Rebel Regulars (the other faction is working as I & I), they certainly exhibited no confusion about what they were playing. The last 20 minutes of their set was a series of essays in live dub which demonstrated a remarkable empathy between the musicians and the man on the desk – with especial kudos to the drummer – and several thunderous climaxes that shook the Palais down to its foundations before a gentle wind-down that ended up with the band leaving the stage one by one until the drummer was left holding court on his own.

In between, Linton Kwesi Johnson delivered his by now almost over-familiar set with as much power and panache as this person has ever seen him deliver it.

With his hat, mike, tapes and dancers, he ran down the familiar litany with a few variations – ‘George Lindo’ was not in his performing repertoire on the last occasions that I’ve seen him – and ‘Sonny’s Lettah’, delivered acappella, was performed as well as he’s ever performed it.

There is little to say about LKJ that hasn’t been said before, here and elsewhere: as poet, performer and propagandist he is masterful, and to neglect his work is nothing less than an act of wilful stupidity.

Only Jah children can play reggae this way…

Linton was introduced as “the man you’ve all come to see”, and he was listened to with respect and admiration as well as being cheered to the echo, but nonetheless it was Aswad’s night.

It’s been unfortunate – how’s that for an understatement? – that both of their albums were recorded at periods in their career when they shouldn’t have been and are thus both extremely dull. But their work on singles has been more than encouraging (check them out backing up Dennis Brown on the epochal ‘Bloody City’ if you get the chance, and if you don’t get the chance, make one.)

However, it is always been a different story in live performance. A couple of years ago, Brinsley was intent upon doing Bob Marley’s act, but now he’s doing his own and both his voice and his (exceptional) stage presence are unmistakable his own. He is rarely frenetic – there is no question of his lashing himself into the kind of trance/frenzy that you’d expect from (say) Spear – but he has startling grace and dignity that dominates stage with ease.

Instrumentally, Drummie Zeb is the hardest of a hard band. He takes easy, fluent, impassioned lead vocals while laying down tough, exquisite rhythm, and the way he plays off, with or against echo and other instrumentalists verges on the intoxicating. At the moment I’m convinced that he’s one of the four of five best drummers I’ve ever seen in my life.

The encores featured trombonist Vin Gordon leading a three-piece horn section, and for the finale they unleashed ‘Warrior Charge’ in a swirl of – God, this is embarrassing – dry ice, a real CO2 job. For years, I’d sworn that I was going to walk out on next group I saw using that noxious stuff, but how could anyone walk out when Aswad play ‘Warrior Charge’?

This band are hotter than hot, tougher than tough. It’s time for Aswad to make their real album, the one that carries the charge they deliver live, the one that puts it over. Time to move. Come forward!

© Charles Shaar MurrayNew Musical Express, 31 January 1981

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